The Geopolitics of Eurovision During a Time of War

The Geopolitics of Eurovision During a Time of War

While European nations may be dithering
on whether their outrage at Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will translate
into a ban on importing Russian oil, their citizens this weekend are poised to
give a modest sign of solidarity to the Ukrainian people: a victory in the 2022
Eurovision Song Contest. If you live in the United States, odds are you’ve
never watched—and perhaps never even heard of—the annual competition, wherein
European countries (and, for some reason, Australia and Israel) face off musically,
one song per country. Created as a symbol of post–World War II continental solidarity, Eurovision
dates back to the 1950s and has gifted the world the brilliance of 
ABBACeline Dion, and the Chicken Lady. In February, the contest booted Russia
from participating, a rare move that is nonetheless in keeping with a certain
undeniable theme in the contest’s generally more frivolous history. For even as
Eurovision’s organizers have gone to strenuous, ridiculous lengths to try and
keep any hint of politics from the international broadcast, political
sympathies inevitably seem to influence its outcomes. 


If the singing contest is niche in the U.S., it’s no small
thing abroad: Over 180 million people watched the finals last year. It finally began
to air in the U.S. in 2016, first on Logo, and is now viewable for subscribers
of NBC’s Peacock streaming service. (Though for those with fewer scruples and
more tech savvy, changing your geolocation with a VPN and watching Graham
Norton’s snark on the BBC will still offer the best viewing experience.) But
the event has never really caught on stateside. When the local version, American
Song Contest,
premiered in March on NBC, fewer people watched
it during its time block than American Idol on ABC, 9-1-1 on Fox,
or The Neighborhood on CBS—despite the fact that it was hosted by Snoop
Dogg and Kelly Clarkson. “When the utterly cuckoo ‘Eurovision’ contest is your
inspiration, how do you get off being so bland?” The Daily Beast asked
of the premiere. If you have heard of the superior European version, it
might be because Will Ferrell made a 2020 Netflix movie in which he plays a
hapless entrant from Iceland—or because of last year’s winner, Italy’s rock
group Måneskin, which surprisingly crossed over to U.S. airwaves and appeared on SNL.

Eurovision’s campyover-the-top performances are its
main draw. Overt pageantry is rewarded, and the quantity of free-flowing gender
play would haunt Ron DeSantis’s nightmares. As NPR’s Glen Weldon recently said,
after noting that the Americanized version lacked “frivolity,” the beauty of
Eurovision is that it “is knowing, and self-aware, and constantly cheating to
the camera to wink at you”—in other words, “a perfectly good workable
definition of queer.” When a contestant sings about rising like
a phoenix, you can be sure gigantic phoenix graphics will appear behind them.
Unlike the staid performances of American Idol or The Voice,
where competitors often sing near-interchangeable tunes, each year’s Eurovision
offers a wide range of sounds, from straightforward would-be hits to absurd
performance art: glitzy pop with cutesy dance routines; the
inevitable Nordic death metal band pretending to be GWAR; painfully twee and
earnest Portuguese crooners;
dramatic fake sax solos;
or stage bombing dancers
in gorilla costumes. The winner is decided by a mix of a jury and fan
vote from each nation, with points awarded during a prolonged, dramatic reveal
by a representative from each country that somehow stays riveting despite
dragging on for nearly an hour.

But beyond the ostentatious performances and elaborate
production, what’s most fascinating is the geopolitical nature of the vote
tallies. Countries tend to support their neighbors, and Russia often boasts a
decent showing thanks to the solidarity of the Eastern bloc. Cyprus and Greece
almost inevitably
grant each other the most points, and despite Brexit it’s never a surprise when
Ireland and the UK favor one another.

Even so, the European Broadcasting Union has for years gone
to absurd, impractical lengths to keep overt politics out of the show. Palestinian
and Basque
flags are prohibited from appearing in the crowd. Georgia was banned from the 2009
competition—held in Moscow—because the lyrics were viewed as anti-Putin. After
the crowd at the 2014 finals booed Russia—as a result of Putin’s decision to
invade Crimea that year and his anti-LGBT domestic policy—the organizers installed
“anti-booing” technology to drown out any negative noise the following year. “The
European Broadcasting Union aims to assure that the Eurovision Song Contest is
free from political statements, unauthorized commercial messages and offensive
comments,” a spokesperson said
in 2016.  Despite the EBU’s best efforts,
however, diplomatic tensions seep in—as they did that very year, when Ukraine’s
Jamala won with “1944,”
a song ostensibly about Stalin’s mass deportation of the population of Crimea
that was also clearly a rebuke to Putin’s decision to invade the region two
years prior.

At first, the contest was scheduled to proceed as normal
this year, even after Russian troops had crossed into Ukraine. “The Eurovision
Song Contest is a non-political cultural event which unites nations and
celebrates diversity through music,” its organizers said
in late February. But days after that initial equivocation, as the extent of Putin’s
violent incursion became clear, the EBU banned Russia from the competition in
Italy. The organizers probably believed, naïvely, that the disinvitation would
be the end of geopolitics for the 2022 contest. Instead, the betting markets currently put
Ukraine’s song as the clear favorite. (Ukraine has had some notoriously excellent entries in the past.)
This year’s song,
“Stefania” by Kalush Orchestra, is a perfectly fine but somewhat mediocre
middle-of-the-pack crowd-pleaser, incorporating elements of traditional
Ukrainian folk music with modern twists: requisite rap and flute-like
instrumental breakdowns.

The band’s lead rapper wrote the song as an ode to his
mother, but with lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home, even if all
roads are destroyed,” it took on new nuance after Putin began shelling
civilian populations. “After it all started with the war and the
hostilities,” he said, “it
took on additional meaning, and many people started seeing it as their mother,
Ukraine, in the meaning of the country. It has become really close to the
hearts of so many people in Ukraine.” The fact that the song may win is as
much about its musical quality as that it’s a chance for the rest of Europe to
express its support for the war-torn country. Where once the EBU rightfully could
have seen the competition as an early indicator of history’s march to
unity—first as postwar Europe united and later, during the 1990s, with the
post-Soviet states folded in—it’s no longer tenable for it to plug its ears
and pretend that the moral arc is bending away from division.

Last year’s Ukrainian entry from Go_A finished fifth
overall and second among fans. But since then, Go_A’s popularity has grown in
Europe and the group has become outspoken about the invasion of its home.
Last month, it released a new song, “Kalyna,” named after a tree that produces
red berries and has long-standing symbolism and importance in Ukrainian culture. The
proceeds of the song went to support Ukrainian efforts to fight off the Russian
invasion. “According to our ancestors,” the band wrote in an Instagram post,
kalyna has a power that brings immortality and can unite generations to fight
evil. The song ‘Kalyna’ is a message to the World that should be united for the
future of humanity.”

Go_A’s lead singer, Kateryna Pavlenko, will come back to
Eurovision as the country’s spokesperson this year to
announce
its vote total from the judges. (Jamala, who
fled
to Turkey after the invasion and has been
performing
at events to support the country, notably
said
she was not invited to Italy for the 2022 Eurovision finals.)

If European voters—both the judges and the votes tabulated
by popular support—give “Stefania” the win, it would be a nice symbolic gesture
and rebuke of the devastation Putin has wrought. But it also would pose a
conundrum for next year’s competition. By tradition, the current winner gets to
host the event the following year. Will Eurovision 2023 take place in a Kyiv
that is free from the threat of invasion, and will Volodymyr Zelenskiy be unrestricted
in his movements and able to welcome an international crowd to a once-again
peaceful country? Or will a Putin puppet regime reign, one likely to stamp out
any dissent? It’ll take a lot more than the moral support of phoning in a vote
for Kalush Orchestra to make sure the former comes to pass.

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